Five Works by Norbert Francis Attard
A Place called Paradise I and II
First appeared in Norbert Francis Attard’s book I see red everywhere.
The idea that happiness is not a place or a thing found one of its earliest expressions in Diogenes and the Cynics. Diogenes lived at a time when it was still apparently possible to couple life and word in a tight embrace. His “doggish” existence, characterized by an absolute refusal to allow material things and power to play central roles, was the “signifier” itself: Diogenes’ life was his philosophy incarnate. Today, it is doubtful whether it is necessary or even possible for a thinker or an artist to refuse the comforts of a bourgeois life simply to be in a position (not compromised by contradiction) to communicate this point. There exists a stronger possibility today that the artist will actually need to immerse himself or herself in those comforts to produce a relevant and communicable critique. Intentional or otherwise, this is the dominant paradox at work in Norbert Attard’s A Place Called Paradise (1 & 2). Like all artists (especially installation artists), Attard requires a place or site to work in, but the paradox here is that Attard must use a place to critique the notion of paradise-as-place. In short, abstinence à la Diogenes is not an option for Attard. The basic requirements of installation art do not permit him to sacrifice the topos, even though he wants to suggest that happiness (both subjective happiness and objectively desirable eudaimonia) and topos are not interdependent. The nature of art (is this also its limitation?) ties the artist’s work to a physical space; if happiness lacks a direct relationship to a specific location, art must always locate itself (unhappily) within a space.
Attard’s installations take their cue from Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. In de Botton’s book, two characters go to Barbados for a holiday and end up arguing over their crème caramel during lunch. The moral of the story: that natural beauty or material wealth are neither sufficient to keep conflicts at bay nor will they solve conflicts once they arise. Quoting from the “wisdom of certain ancient philosophers who walked away from prosperity and sophistication”, de Botton muses that the key to happiness can only be psychological, an internal rather than external problem. Perhaps herein lies Attard’s way of coming to terms with the paradox mentioned in the first paragraph. If the key to happiness is indeed internal, then the external must itself be internalized. Wealth must be transferred within: this is what happens in Attard’s A Place called Paradise. A small, poor room in a dilapidated Valletta building is transformed into a beach scene, complete with umbrella, deck-chair and false sand (beneath which a chapter from de Botton’s book, traced in red letters on the floor in the artist’s own handwriting, invites the viewer to become a participant).
The public is surprised by this quasi-surrealist juxtaposition of opposites: the last thing you would expect to find in a slum is a manifestation of physical bliss. This element of surprise returns when one looks at the far end of the room, where a golden tap over a sink pours forth deep red liquid resembling blood, creating an image of waste. Outside the room, one hundred red towels hang from gold pegs over the dimly-lit courtyard. The seaside is probably the epitome of the external, with its horizon, its vastness, its currents, its open sky as well as its connotations of travel and distance. Attard attaches this image of pleasure and luxury to the squalor of a slum interior. Barbados is within.
As de Botton suggests, we should not blame the weather for our misery. Of course, this image of paradise is not objective: paradise cannot be objectified in a way that would result in universal satisfaction or consensus. Nor can we escape bad weather all the time: our joys and our disappointments always take place within a physical context, the body as well as the site of the body in space. For the attachment to a place is not a quality exclusively owned by art or installation art; even our moments of happiness are topographically and temporally situated. There exist limits even to how much a person can abstain from life’s comforts. As long as life persists in our bodies, we cannot escape space. Perhaps this is why we attach so much importance to the places of our lives. We might have no choice.
I see red everywhere
First appeared in Norbert Francis Attard’s book I see red everywhere.
Red is probably the most abused colour in the spectrum. It shocks television viewers when it makes a sudden appearance at war scenes but returns to banality whenever it colours fast-food chains. The sheer strength and brilliance of red make it the most ambiguous of colours: it can represent sexual passion or even maternal warmth and patriotic love but it often borders on vulgarity.
Its multivocal character is probably a result of its “excessive” nature. Red is always “in excess”: it is always too hot, too eye-catching, too partisan, too greedy, too painful, too noisy. It doesn’t ask politely for our attention; it demands it! This is the essence of its vulgarity. Red refuses to be subtle. It doesn’t know when enough is enough.
The lone tree engulfed by red fabric in I See Red Everywhere stands at the other extreme. Without leaves and roots, the tree is denuded, its death laid bare before our eyes. This minimalism is the opposite of excess. Here, we are faced by the minimal visual and material requirements for a tree. The trunk and branches still resemble what once was a living thing, but this tree is no longer biologically active. Alive, the tree would be a symbol of patience. Dead, it has ceased its slow, organic quest for growth.
Swallowed up by that torrent of red, the dead tree nevertheless acts as a fulcrum. It stands balanced calmly at the centre of that wave of violent colour, as though it were always meant to be there. It brings back a sense of order to the most disorderly, excessive colour of all. Excess is balanced by lack; energy is balanced by the stillness of death.
Back to Babel
In the beginning God said, “Let there be one language”. And so it was. God created man, male and female, and gave them each a tongue so that they would be able to speak back to him and each other, and call every wild animal by its name. But many, many years later, long after the Lord had driven that first couple out of the Garden of Eden, their pioneering descendants settled on a great plain and agreed among themselves to build a tall tower. “Come,” they said, “let us make bricks and use them to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens.” So they set themselves to this ambitious task, and the tower soon started to rise above a new city. The Lord was unhappy to see the vanity of man, and he said, “Let difference descend upon the earth, and let the singularity of their language divide itself into a plurality of tongues.” So the Lord confused their speech, and the people of Babel (as the city came to be called) started to speak many languages and were dispersed all over the earth. So it was; thus came into being postmodernism, and it was very good.
Which problem, if any, does Back to Babel address? Aren’t we still in a ‘state of Babel’, and haven’t we always been in this state? Returning to what we have always been and will remain, despite the globalizing utopias of technology: what kind of nostalgia is this? To dream of returning to the present, that is to the heterogeneous, multi-layered present we occupy, even though the boundaries of our diverse cultural and linguistic landscapes have been invaded by what Arjun Appadurai has labelled contemporary, homogenizing “technoscapes” – is this what the multi-lingual and multi-national recordings, texts and projections of Back to Babel imply?
Perhaps, we should rather see in this installation a romantic refusal of contemporary versions of Babel – the Web, for example. Web-sites and links in different, often unrecognisable languages ignore geographical borders and join the queue on your home computer’s monitor. What do you do? You skip them. What counts today is not so much the democratic co-existence of us and the others, the
good and the bad, the central and the peripheral; the most important aspect of information today is speed. What internet-users want is to get to what they desire (and away from everything that is irrelevant) as quickly as possible. Yet the very size of the Web, the continuous multiplication of sites, and its hypertextual format pose a problem. This is why we are enticed, year after year, with the possibility of achieving greater speeds: to escape, as rapidly as we can, the frustrating universality and ultra-tolerant nature of the Web. Like the all-encompassing collection of books in The Library of Babel by Borges, the globalizing, totalizing ambition of the World Wide Web censors nothing, but this also means that the acquisition of knowledge is permitted only at the cost of having to navigate through a sea of sites of purely commercial, dubious or minor interest.
Was Babel a blessing or a curse? But why should Babel be an either/or situation? Because it refers to a divine intervention, and interventions of this sort can only be unequivocal? And is art unequivocal? It hardly seems so. Back to Babel deals with the local as well as the global, and its video projections and crushed, multi-lingual newspapers refer to the complex and dynamic relationships between the two. Fluctuations in the local are complemented by fluctuations in the global. One must nevertheless remain wary of exhaustive, total systems. As Lyotard showed us, art is possibly the best safeguard against this threat.
Was Babel God’s work of art?
Clone therefore revolves around the problem of identity and genetic identification. We know that contemporary cloning techniques are capable of producing genetically identical individuals. But this genetic identification with another individual (or individuals) cannot be counted as numerical sameness. Wittgenstein once wrote that “to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense”. Two or more individuals can be engineered to look exactly the same but they can never occupy each other’s place in the world at the same instant. Perhaps this idea will not provide much consolation for those amongst us who are not so excited by recent advances in genetic engineering. It is still unnerving to imagine, like a writer of science fiction, that those eyes looking back at me in Clone do not belong to me even though they are qualitatively the same eyes. A world full of cloned humans would give a whole new meaning to the word ‘vanity’. It would also ban the use of mirrors.
There are many types of borders in existence: geographical, political, social, cultural, linguistic, psychological, sexual. A border delineates; it frames and separates simultaneously. It can also decorate an interior space, linking this space to an exterior one. Indeed, this linkage is precisely the central paradox of borders. A borderline is an end and a beginning; it is an end which shows that there can be no end. For something must lie beyond every end, the inner space overflowing into the outer. Borders are therefore like a cyclic chain of ends, one limit making us aware of another limit and so on. This is the sense of “to border on”: to come close, to resemble. It means that some overlapping must occur in and around borders, that the other is always invaded by the same.
This doll with a world-map as a dress is truly a citizen of the world. She is truly “ecumenical”: she inhabits the earth and wears it proudly around her (non-existent?) body. Indeed, her “body” is the earth, fragmented and re-stitched into a new configuration without regard to real geographical borders. This puppet optimistically asserts: “Geographical borders are the only borders we need (and they’re not that important either). Let’s not create other borders between us.”
What is her real identity? But the question is already misleading. To ask the question “what is” already implies an unnecessary simplification or restriction of her identity. The same problem applies to the notion of “culture”, often defended by ultra-nationalistic, misguided individuals against foreign influences. To defend a static view of culture implies that culture does not change, that its monolithic design must remain unaltered in spite of changes taking place everywhere around it. This recipe for cultural isolation is just as distasteful as a forced semblance of homogenization.
So this doll, this girl, this plaything is a globetrotter, wrapped up in world matters. Yet there is something almost perverse about this marriage of brown paper-maps sewn together and this (not particularly attractive) doll. Why a doll? Yes, the “countries” in her dress break through traditional borders, resist the conservative urge to isolate themselves, recreate themselves by permitting neighbourly, intertextual combinations. But why does this brave, new world become the stuffing for a doll’s neck? Is somebody playing games with the world? Are we all puppets?